British crimes against Tamil indentured laborers (coolies)

Winston Churchill said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” and that they were ‘breeding like rabbits’ so what did the British do, they transported them all over the world to be used as labor and to fester clashes under their famous divide and rule policy. No sooner slavery ended, indentured labor began, to end only in 1920. Some 3.5million people from India were transported to the 178 countries that the British Empire ruled over barring just 22 countries. These Indians were plucked from their homes and exported to all corners of the world in most inhuman and cruel conditions. It was these same Tamils that fought alongside the British Army against India and no sooner indentured labor ended in the 1920s the Tamils began to ask for a separate Tamil Nadu state. All post-independent colonies are carrying headaches manufactured by the British.

 The short and sweet of the argument is this. Indentured Indian Tamil laborers were transported to all corners of the world to help Britain earn profits. From 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain had transported over 3 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Ceylon, Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. Many of these coolies were low caste Tamils (dalits). The calculated emigration of Dalits from India is very much similar to the manner the British got rid of its convicts by sending them to America and Australia. The proposed bridge connecting Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu will end up in millions of Tamil Nadu Dalits freely flowing to Sri Lanka.  

 None of the countries to which these Tamils were transported during colonial rule wanted them or even asked for them. Britain as invading occupiers of lands that were not their own were doling out land to these Tamil laborers as if the lands belonged to them.Thereafter, after giving independence having made off with profits and looting every country’s treasures, the British insists that the newly independent colonies give citizenship to people the British transported. What kind of logic is this? It is the British who needs to look after all the people they forcefully transported for their profit without forcing other countries to keep them. They are not citizens of these countries and they never were.

When indentured laborers formally ended towards 1920 the laborers in Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Jamaica, Malaysia, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ceylon some decided to stay, some wanted to return to India while others went to the UK in the 1950s. That is how Indians came to be part of the demography in the West Indies, South Africa and parts of Asia to which the British transported them so the British could become rich and leave behind trouble for the natives to sort out and the Brits could fan these issues into further chaos.

 The first batch of Tamil labourers came around 1823 from Tamil Nadu, then called the Madras Presidency. They first came to work on coffee plantations. At least 40,000 per year started flowing from India to Sri Lanka. These numbered far more than the Indians that had come earlier from Tamil Nadu. By independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had over 1million Indian Tamil indentured laborers. The total population of the country was 8million..

 Even a formula was created – there were to be 7 women for 25% of the total and males were not to exceed 3 times the number of females dispatched.

Table: Tamil Population in Sri Lanka, Burma and Malaya 1871-1981 – (figures in thousands)
  1871 1881 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1946
Sri Lanka 203.3 320.2 313.3  497.9 563.8 635.7 854.8 816.2
Malaya  27.5 36.3 62.7 98.0 220.4 387.5 514.8 461.0
Burma   35.1 71.4 99.6 125.7 152.3 184.l 90.0
Total 230.8 391.6 447.4 695.5 909.9 1175.5 1553.7 1367.2
As proportion of Tamil Nadu
Population (per cent)
1.5 2.5 2.5 3.6 4.4 5.4 6.6 4.9

Sri Lanka: Population of Tamils and Indian Moors according to censuses from 1911 onwards; figures for 1981 [Guilmoto, 1987]; indirect estimates before 1911 based on the total Tamil population.
Malaya and Singapore
: Tamil-speaking population, estimates before 1931 based on the population of Indian origin.
Burma: Tamil-speaking population according to censuses; free estimates for 1946 and 1981 due to lack of statistical information.

 Source: Censuses of countries concerned and my own estimates.

The British Government that points fingers at nations and talks about human rights, treated these coolies as slaves. They were made to work under harsh working conditions, long hours, little food & water, low wages and anyone grumbling were severely dealt with. Children as young as 5 years were made to work and today these very countries speak about child labor. Work started not at 9a.m but at 3a.m. in the morning. Anyone getting up late was whipped. Rain or sun, these Tamils had to work.

 The Kenya-Uganda Railway built between 1895 and 1902 was by Indian laborers. 7% of these laborers actually died due to the harsh conditions. Anyone who tried to escape had their 5 year contract doubled and sent to prison!

 They were put to work on sugar, cotton and tea plantations and rail construction projects

 It is not the successive Sinhalese Governments that has to be faulted for treatment of Indian Tamils but the British who brought these Tamils from India to work on British plantations under sub-human conditions.

It is not the fault of Ceylon/Sri Lanka that these Indians were treated as aliens, with no right of asylum. That was how the British wanted their status to be. The British only spoke for their rights when they were preparing to leave Sri Lanka.

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With these realities staring at us, the present government needs to seriously relook at allowing a wave of Indians to enter after ECTA (CEPA) is signed opening doors to Indian service sector to enter Sri Lanka. Previously the Indians were brought by the British, why is this government foolishly doing the same mistake?

 What is relevant about the Indian Tamils used as labor by the British and the current decision to allow Indian workers to freely arrive, work and live in Sri Lanka is that Indians are poorer than their Sri Lankan counterparts and are willing to work under severe conditions for cheaper wages. It was the Dalit low castes of Pariah, Kallar, Sakkili and Palla that came during British rule and probably the same will return.

 That India is keen on Mannar is a reminder that these Indian labor came from Mannar during British rule. They had to walk 150miles to Matale. Many died walking. The British human rights then did not permit medical attention because the British did not wish to spend a penny on any non-white. Those who died were just left to decay. The British human rights was such that they didn’t even provide toilets. There was nothing known as a company’s assets are its staff then! The British would not hear of educating these coolies. You cannot have educated coolies as slaves!

 The usage of the term Indian Tamil came in 1911 during the census. Those that argue claiming Indian Tamils were disenfranchised need to wake up and realize that these Indians brought as coolies by the British were not citizens of Sri Lanka in the first place. Therefore the question of disenfranchisement does not arise. The issue was that the Indians did not want to take back the hundreds and thousands of Indian Tamil coolies while the Sri Lankans awaiting independence did not wish to have them in Sri Lanka. India did not wish to take these coolies back because the 3.5million indentured laborers scattered all over the world would have also had to be taken back which Nehru did not want.

 Sri Lanka had every right to decide how it was to keep people belonging to another nation. Under the Citizenship Act of 1948, only 5000 out of about 800,000 Indian laborers were able to show two generations residence in Ceylon. Under the Indian & Pakistani Residents Citizenship Act of 1949 those who could show 7-10 years residence in Ceylon were given citizenship. 134,000 qualified from the 800,000. The Indian laborers were all Indians and it was subsequent to arriving to work on British plantations that they had generations of children. It was India’s fault that their mission in Colombo refused to register all Indian laborers which eventually made them stateless. Under the Indo-Ceylon Agreement of 1954 known as Nehru-Kotelawala Pact, stateless Indian Tamils were categorized separately in the electoral register for 10 years in order that they learn Sinhala. By 1964 Indian Tamils were 975,000 and under the Sirima-Shastri Pact India agreed to take back 525,000 while 300,000 were absorbed by Sri Lanka.  What is important about both the 1954 and 1964 agreements is that India accepted that over 50% Indian nationals in Sri Lanka were India’s responsibility. The 1974 Pact Sri Lanka agreed to take 75,000 of the 150,000 left. Eventually 514,000 Indians were to remain in Sri Lanka.

 Then politics interfered. The government changed in 1977 and repatriation stopped. A secret agreement between JR Jayawardena and Thondaman absorbed 94,000 Indians Tamils while 83,000 who were preparing to leave for India were given employment. Not stopping there the Citizenship by Affidavit Act 39 of 1988 allowed anyone to become a citizen of Sri Lanka by signing an affidavit. This paved the way for 469,000 Indians to become citizens in Sri Lanka. In 1986 only 233,000 Indians had registered while bogus affidavits had been submitted. K H J Wijedasa former secretary to President Premadasa said that Sri Lanka ended up saddled with 634,000 Indians.

 On top of Indian indentured labor, there was also the case of the kallathonis – the illegal immigrants from South India and several lakhs had been coming between 1950-1970 to the Wanni region (could these have been the LTTE cadres?). The Task Force set up to tackle illicit immigration was disbanded by the UNP Government.

 An article by Dilrook Kannangara titled ‘Wigneswaran should know eelam (Ceylon) Tamil ethnicity is only 105 years old” draws attention to how the British created an artificial ethnic group called Ceylon Tamils in 1911. Before 1911 there was no ethnic group called Ceylon Tamils (it is identical to how the British created Rohingya issue in Myanmar).

 Any Tamil born in Sri Lanka or those born in India became Ceylon Tamils in 1911. To prove this he gives the 1881, 1891 and 1901 census where all Tamils were called Tamils only (people originating from India). Dilrook goes on to write that only after creating the Ceylon Tamil League in 1922 by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam that divided the two as Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils at independence. It was these Ceylon Tamils that started Tamil homeland campaign. What Dilrook reiterates is that had the 1911 classification remained there would have been no homeland demands as all Tamils were referred to as Ceylon Tamils with their roots in Tamil Nadu, India so they would have had no right to seek a separate homeland in Sri Lanka. Dilrook also rightly points out that all Tamil inscriptions in Sri Lanka are of Indian origin from Chola dynasty. He sites Yalpana Vaipava Malai written by a South Indian in 1736 under colonial Dutch as being the only Tamil historical chronicle relating to Sri Lanka. Malaysia, Burma and Singapore who were recipient of British export of Tamils from India clearly defined them as Indian Tamils.

 The British-Indian Tamil ties are long. Tamils served as Britains best cheap labor, they were ready to be transported anywhere around the world, they served their white masters without question, they were subservient and ready to even become part of the sepoy British army and fight against their own people. This chemistry between the British and Indian Tamils perhaps is what made the LTTE decide to choose London as their international headquarters as the British had no issues allowing LTTE to carry out their campaign from London. However, in turn the British treated Tamils like vassals – to be used, and used and used.

 Given that nation-state borders are being redrawn by creating refugees and forcing them to cross continents, it is time that Tamils are wiser and as payback for their subservience to the British, demand entry to the UK rather than allowing open door policy for nationals from the Middle East/Eastern Europe.

 Shenali D Waduge  



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This entry was posted on February 17, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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